Sunday, May 25, 2014

Planning a visit to the historical Ford’s Theatre

Ford's Theatre has a strong connection to U.S. history, and is best known as being the location of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. On April 14, 1865, just as the Civil War had reached its end and the Union was preserved as one nation, John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln in the back of his head as a part of an elaborate and carefully planned out assassination.

Today, the theatre has been completely restored to its 1865 appearance. Ford's Theatre operates as both a historic site and a working theatre. 

Ford's Theatre
Exterior of Ford's Theatre

There are two levels to the building. The bottom floor is a museum dedicated to President Lincoln. Inside these rooms are many original items relating to the April 1865 assassination, including actual artifacts relating to that tragic night and clothing worn by President and Mrs. Lincoln.

The upper level serves as the theatre where each season several high quality shows are run; the theatre season typically begins in the fall and runs through late spring. However, there are other events in the off-season as well. Visitors are welcome daily to tour the building and learn an in-depth history of the theatre and President Lincoln's assassination.


History of Ford's Theatre

Ford's Theatre was opened by John T. Ford, a successful theatrical entrepreneur who hailed from Baltimore, Md. In 1861, Ford decided to bring his expertise and success to Washington, D.C. Initially, a musical theatre was located at the First Baptist Church on 10th Street but, unfortunately, a fire destroyed that location in 1862. The fire did not deter Ford's spirit and he took the task of raising funds for a new theatre. 

In February 1863 Ford laid the cornerstone for the new building at its current location on 10th Street. Performances commenced later that year and ran until April 14, 1865. This was the evening the President and Mrs. Lincoln attended a show at the theatre when the president was fatally shot by Booth.

"Our American Cousin" playbill at Ford's Theatre
President and Mrs. Lincoln were at a showing of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre the night the president was assassinated
The theatre closed immediately after Lincoln's assassination so an investigation could be done. Once this investigation was completed, the theatre was given permission to reopen, however, Ford received threats of arson if he reopened. Ultimately, the War Department decided to close the theatre completely. The building then became a government office building for a number of years.


Establishing a historic site

In 1932 the building was opened as a museum on the first floor and was run by the National Park Service. The theatre restoration to its 1865 appearance didn't come until much later, as it wasn't until 1960 Congress budgeted funding for this project. Finally, in 1968 the theatre was able to reopen and resume performances.

Balcony at Ford's Theatre
Today the interior of the theatre has been restored to how it looked on April 14, 1865, this is the box the President and Mrs. Lincoln were sitting in
In recent years, Ford's Theatre has gone through some additional major renovations which were completed in July 2009. If you have ever visited in years previous to this, you'll quickly note the procedure for touring has completely been revamped along with the renovations. With the addition of administrative offices, a lobby, gift shop and concession next door to the theatre, visiting Ford's Theatre for tours is now structured very differently than in years past. There is also an entire education center now located across the street, which is also part of a tour. NPS continues to run the tours.


Planning a Ford's Theatre visit

Today, visitors need tickets to view the museum and/or take the tour. This can be confusing to those who are used to the old way of touring the building. When you arrive be sure and read the signs because there are now specific times for tickets for both the museum and the theatre. Not all time frames include a tour of both, and you may end up getting the wrong tickets for what you want to see if you do not read the signs carefully.

Tickets remain free, and a great addition to the tour is a Park Ranger talk given in the theatre with a history of both the theatre and the night President Lincoln was assassinated. The lecture is quite interesting and informative. Regardless of which ticket you get (just the theatre or the museum/theatre), the Petersen House across the street is a part of the package. You can go over there at any time you want during the day. The Petersen House line tends to get really long after a theatre lecture ends, I recommend you get your tickets early and go over to view the Petersen House first, or go do some other sightseeing in the area and come back when lines are a little shorter.

Petersen House
After he was shot, President Lincoln was brought across the street to a boarding house. This is the home in which he died, now known as the "Petersen House"
To tour this landmark, you can either order your tickets online via Ticketmaster (there is a processing fee charged for this convenience - prices have been increasing in recent years and I'm not sure if this varies by season - check Ticketmaster for current prices) or walk-in requests are available completely free of charge. The downside to walk-ins is you may not get the time frame you want to take your tour and it seems these are gone very quick. There have been times my family was able to walk right in on the day we visited, so during off seasons you may or may not have any problems in getting a ticket, but if you are traveling from a distance and/or if your visit is during peak season or on a holiday weekend, you definitely want to consider reserving your space well ahead of time to ensure you get a time slot. Our friends came to town over spring break and we tried about two months ahead of time and were not able to get tickets.

Ford's Theatre National Historic site is located at 511 10th St., NW, the Petersen House is directly across the street. The building is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Christmas Day. Keep in mind Ford's Theatre is still very much a working theatre and tours of the theatre are suspended during rehearsals or matinee shows. The museum and Petersen House are still open during these times.

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